The Film Business

The PIXAR Method: Tricks of the Hit Machine

modeling what works

photo by: JD Hancock

At the time of writing, PIXAR has released its 12th number one box office film, Cars 2. In an industry that expects one out of ten releases to be hit films, their critical and box office track record is unprecedented. Not even the early Disney studio had such a run of success.

You could credit the talents of people who work there, from Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter on down. They are immensely talented people, to be sure. But there are plenty of people with talent in Hollywood. Why has no other studio had the same success?

I believe that PIXAR has certain unique methods that help them craft superior films.  And the good news is, because PIXAR began as an outsider company, many of these methods are well within reach of the indie filmmaker. Here are a few new tricks from the old toys…

Perturbate the Model

While a single writer/director is usually the prime creative force behind each PIXAR film, all of the films are regularly subjected to “brutally honest” critiques while in development from a group known as the Brain Trust. The original members of the Brain Trust were Lasseter, Pete Docter (Up, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) and the late Joe Ranft. The group now reportedly includes other directors and creatives like Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Brenda Chapman (The Prince of Egypt). As you can see, the story must withstand scrutiny from a collective with a massive movie IQ.

Finance wizards have an expression: to perturbate the model. They test how models of markets would react in this or that extreme situation. The creative wizards at PIXAR do exactly the same thing. Before they ever start animating a story, it has been rigorously tested. Does this or that plot point make sense? What are the characters’ goals? Is this unique and original? While the ultimate creative decisions rest with the filmmaker, the ones that survive the perturbations from PIXAR’s Brain Trust ultimately result in a stronger story.

But what can an isolated filmmaker do without access to the PIXAR Brain Trust? Start your own.  Regularly focus-testing projects with other filmmakers whose opinion you respect is invaluable and now, thanks to social networking, simple to do. Go to some local film festivals or filmmaker events meet other filmmakers and start your own Brain Trust.

Be Willing to Set Projects Aside

If you put years of your life into developing a project, but it just wasn’t ready, would you be willing to put it aside? Walt Disney did this — many times. As someone with the privilege of going through Disney’s archives, I’ve had a chance to see many projects that were delayed or never came to fruition. Disney often resisted commercial pressure to rush a film into production, and guess who else has this habit? John Lasseter, Disney worshipper.

“I’ve got Disney blood running through my veins,” he has been quoted as saying. “I do what I do because of Walt Disney.” [The Sunday Times October 2009] Even before PIXAR had a track record, he threw out the original story for Toy Story and started again from scratch, even though doing so jeopardized a deal with the Disney Studio to help release it. We know from our perch in the present that it all worked out, but at that time, the pressure must have been enormous.

Following Walt Disney’s lead, Lasseter and other executives at PIXAR have taken steps to make such a hard call a easier. They keep a lot of projects in development. This is expensive, but it means they get a choice of projects when the production pipeline is ready.

Most successful indie filmmakers do something similar, if on a smaller scale. They “keep irons in the fire” and are “willing to kill their babies” if it serves the ultimate creative goal: making a great movie.

Play in the Sandbox

When bestselling business authors Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson analyzed the corporate culture of PIXAR, they observed a childlike sense of fun in every aspect of the company.  One of the keys is the way collaboration is used to constantly “plus” projects. PIXAR employees build on each others’ ideas like kids working to build a massive sandcastle.

Their takeaway: “Innovation does not come from a miraculous revelation … it comes from habitual, nonstop collaboration.” As PIXAR employees eat breakfast cereal (provided free), they can sit around like kids at the breakfast table and bounce ideas off one another. Then they can adjourn to a secret room with a hidden door that opens by pressing a button under a statue (I’m not making this up) as they continue to work on it.

As a filmmaker, you have to feel free to experiment, unleash the imagination that was so strong in childhood. I’m not saying a bowl of Frosted Flakes is the best way to do that. But whatever sort of environment is a creative sandbox for you, make it happen.

There are plenty more PIXAR methods that deserve to be cloned by filmmakers, but I’ll leave it here for now. See you in the sandbox!

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